Growing Libraries--And Cutting Them Back Down


People who love books tend to want all of their own together, in one place, and preferably nearby. Part of this is utility; what good is having a book if you can’t use it? But beyond that, like any collection, they express an entire personality—who you are, or at least who you want to be. This isn’t to say that they’re just window-dressing, of course. The books you own are part of how you explain yourself to yourself. Whether you grew up with Madeleine L’Engle or Philip Pullman; whether you liked “The Scarlet Letter” or “The Great Gatsby” best in high school; whether you’re an Alice Munro person, a Lydia Davis person, or both—this is a deeply felt part of who you are, and everyone who owns even a few books knows it.

Taking a few books from home to college is like taking a cutting of one tree to start another. The graft has the same genetic character as the old library, but in miniature, and it gradually takes on a life of its own. It’s of the same species, but its limbs sprawl and stretch in completely different directions in its new climate. Preparing for moving into college freshman year, I’d carefully chosen a few favorites—a couple gift books, a favorite novel or two, a dictionary to help me keep up my high school French, and a Modern Language Association (MLA) guide. But this new sister library was, over time, colored by the courses I took, the cheap paperbacks picked up in the basement of Harvard Book Store, the occasional reading for free moments; its shade was deeper, its fruit had a different taste, it reflected a different side of me. And, by the time the year came to an end, I had a huge problem: how was I going to get all this stuff home?

I realized that I’d grown two separate libraries, anchored in two different spots, and trying to get them all in one place again would take about as much effort as moving a tree. Books root you to a place. They are large, heavy, low-mobility objects; and when you own and love them, it is hard to leave them. It is also hard to take them anywhere. They are a sign that your life has a center—a staging ground or home base from which everything else is seen. Part of me believes that having a split library is like loving two sister trees in different orchards: they’re the same, but different, and always seem to be calling out to one another from a distance, longing to be reunited.

Last year, I tried to keep a lot of my books in summer storage. I wrapped most of my books up in some kind of turbo Saran wrap from Staples and packed them in boxes, hoping that the basement wouldn’t flood. They emerged unscathed, though I think my building manager might have a heart attack if he realized how much space they actually took up. (It’s not something I’m hoping to repeat.) In order to avoid the issue this year, I’m trying to find ways to get a lot of them back home early. Thank God for the postal service. Books are notoriously expensive to ship, but the flat-rate boxes seem to be a good solution. The large ones are $15 each, better by far than either shipping by weight or by media mail, which charges $4 per book.

And so the other day I found myself dragging two large flat-rate boxes of books in a carry-on suitcase to the post office on the corner of Mt. Auburn and Story. I felt bad about sending them home, but I had looked at them long and hard and determined that there was absolutely no chance I would be able to read them while I was at school. I will never find the free time for the odes of Horace or “The Return of the Native” or, Lord knows, the Arcades Project during the term. And so, as much as I love them, I shipped them back home like an aggrieved parent might ship off a particularly rambunctious pre-adolescent to boarding school. Good riddance.

—Columnist Spencer B.L. Lenfield can be reached at